Categories
Voices

A Lizzy-Shaped Space

by Ally Chase | Voices | Spring 2021

Vincent Zhu, Crack (series)

The Closeness and Hope of Female Friendship.


“First of all:

I am tired.
I am true of heart!

And also:

You are tired.
You are true of heart!”

Dave Eggers

I met Lizzy on the first day of gym class, almost exactly in the middle of high school. Having spent all of my adolescence concerned, and not particularly satisfied, with the ways friendship functioned in my life, making a new friend at this point was like coming to a clearing halfway through a long, uphill hike. As a kid my shelves were filled with stories of forgiveness and generosity, companionship a force so strong in these books that it shimmered above the page. I loved to imagine myself as half of one of those duos of friends who were completely fulfilled by the company of the other person and thus unafraid, even content, to stand together against the rest of the world. When the characters you hope to see in yourself pass loyalty between them like breathing, building secret worlds that resist all time and distance, it’s nearly impossible to keep your expectations from getting lost somewhere among the rafters of the library ceiling.  

Then all of a sudden it becomes true: You meet someone, just as I met Lizzy on that morning many Januaries ago, and it feels like the most fortunate gift of chance you’ve ever received. I know now that luck is only good for the first few minutes; it’s not enough on its own to propel a friendship toward longevity. I couldn’t see then exactly how this friendship would take shape—you reach that depth of understanding only with time. But the class periods I spent getting to know her were pockets of joy in otherwise-monotonous winter days. Fifty-five minutes on weekday mornings turned into eating her Teddy Grahams at lunch and watching The Bachelor on Monday nights so we could whisper about it between yoga poses. And on Good Friday, on the first truly warm afternoon of what I remember as an unusually sunny spring, I took Lizzy’s school bus back to her house and sat around a bonfire with her family to hear stories of their days and lives.

If meeting Lizzy was a gift, each day I know her is a day I get to keep unwrapping it. I suppose we all wish our friends could see themselves in the ways we do, because everything Lizzy touches ends up better than how she found it. Being a witness to this magic makes me more sure of my words before they come out of my mouth, and pushes me to think longer about what is really the right thing to do. Her thoughtfulness forgets no one and nothing; her careful consideration borders on an indecisiveness we share. I hear her words of compassion and insight long after I’ve hung up the phone, but the look of tranquil concern on her face as she listens to me says enough. Devotion can be the simplest thing, so simple that we don’t need words for it. She shows me that a good friendship coaxes out the parts of us we may never see animated if not for a person who has taken the time to understand them. 

All I’ve read has told me that throughout time, friendship has been a room where philosophical as well as emotional exchanges paper the walls and cover the floors. My own experiences confirm this idea; friendship has manifested in exactly the right places and in enough ways to prove itself a necessity that is, like all traditions worth observing, simultaneously changing and continuing. Yet as I’ve gotten older I’ve also seen how abruptly a friendship can shift—one person’s energies get redirected, a very different object of love takes up space where there was none, and time falls away. 

Having a friend means you hope unequivocally, as you know she hopes for you, that the easiest, most comfortable kind of love finds her at the moment she most needs it. Lizzy and I have been there before, where something so wonderful fell into her lap that she needed to hold it with both hands. The hands that had been around my shoulders, that had reached down to pick up anything I had dropped. It was a dazed, disconnected year for me, feeling cut off at the knees, driving home alone after school. Not quite knowing how to carry Lizzy’s bounty and my loss at the same time. 

And yet it passed. We hardly bring it up anymore; that time reflects harshly on us both, and it seems ridiculous, impossible even, considering all that we have now and all I have learned since then. Now, from the other side, I spend time wondering how life would be if we treated friendship and partner romance with the same reverence, two pillars of intimacy meant to bear equal amounts of our emotional weight. I have an idea of what that could look like; my future has a Lizzy-shaped space drawn into it. It’s a relief to know this expectation is not just an intention, but a fact I can take for granted. Now it seems the endurance of this friendship will make the unknown future ahead of us bearable, even welcome. In her memoir Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett writes about her late friend Lucy Grealy: “We were better off when we were together. Together we were a small society of ambition and high ideals. We were tender and patient and kind. We were not like the world at all.” Lizzy and I talk of grad school together, of sharing an apartment, of our children tacking “Aunt” in front of the other person’s name. I have dreams of the two of us at a kitchen table, after all partners and kids have gone to sleep, the last night of a dreamlike summer week. (No doubt we will have deliberated all year between the beach and the mountains, each person hoping the other would just make the decision for us.) We are sitting beside each other in comfortable silence, mugs of tea between us, wondering which of us played every single one of her cards right. 

Lizzy and I have other dreams, too, ones not so much rooted in time but in feeling. Like maybe one day, we won’t have to wonder any longer when it will subside—that sensation of waiting for something, for our directions to line up with our destinations. The gauzy clouds of uncertainty that seem to surround us as we move through our lives will part, and we will find an understanding in the daily goodness of the world and our purposes in it that lets us forget about the looming what-ifs. And one day, the vague and fickle sadness that sneaks in through some drafty window is suddenly unable to push its way through, and the contentment we’ve been searching for will be just there—will have been just out of view this whole time.

As much as Lizzy and I may anticipate whatever lies on the other side of now, the past will always be next to where we stand; it’s true that we may be too comfortable there. In college they teach you that the more you recall a memory, the more vulnerable it becomes. Every time you think of it, that old image of what really happened mixes with your present state of mind to produce a more or less false account of the truth. But much of my time these days I supplement with remembrance; just looking at the way the wind moves through the grass makes me think of riding my bike behind Lizzy on Balcom Street on any given day last summer. And still, sometimes when I eat ice cream, I think of sitting together in the Ben & Jerry’s by the college I didn’t want to go to, the one my parents were silently rooting for, the one Lizzy would enroll in come September, not fully imagining until it was too late what it could have looked like to spend four more years with a person who knew as well as I did that I would always ask for chocolate sprinkles on my cone. 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton said of Susan B. Anthony, “So closely interwoven have been our lives, our purposes, and experiences, that separated we have a feeling of incompleteness.” And while physical separation keeps me and Lizzy apart apart more than anything else (recently we realized there will be a single day between when she returns home from school and when I start my next semester), just layering a moment we shared many months ago onto a day we spend apart makes it complete. It isn’t that I want to remember my way back into the past so much as I hope to bring the past up to meet me where I am. That way, when the sun sets over the river I walk to every week, a hat pulled over my ears and my raw frozen hands stuffed into my pockets, the sky I’m seeing is the one Lizzy and I stared into at the beginning of last July. Each night that weekend we sat with our feet dangling off the dock, watching as a burning sun poured itself out for us in shades of pink against the sky, before it sank down to become the dark smooth ripples of the lake. I figure if such a moment of light lodges itself behind my eyes, why shouldn’t I let it refract onto an otherwise unremarkable instance and paint the whole thing a warm, Lizzy-tinted shade?

Sometimes when I eat ice cream, I think of sitting together in the Ben & Jerry’s by the college I didn’t want to go to, the one my parents were silently rooting for, the one Lizzy would enroll in come September.

In some ways I feel no one knows what it is to have a friend the way I have Lizzy. Yet in other ways it is even more special to imagine there was a version of our friendship that existed between other people long before we came along. Because really, it always happens in the same way—Ann and Lucy, Elizabeth and Susan. First you find someone you can grow up with, and as you two become yourselves alongside one another you can’t help but take in parts of the other person. And the pieces of herself she decides she no longer likes, or has grown out of, or wants to change completely—you put those in your pocket. You keep the endless versions of who she was and who she hopes to be right next to those versions of yourself, so one day when you’re both old women, you can say to each other, “I saved this for you, because I thought you may want it later,” and you can spill everything out onto the table, sifting through the memories you share and the ones you don’t, because at this point it’s all the same. You will find that everything you have lived she has lived, because she has stayed with you in every way imaginable.

So the story of me and Lizzy goes on every day, whether we know we’re writing it or not. Thoreau offers that the language of friendship is not words, but meaning. And while what Lizzy and I do best is talk and listen, we struggled with how to say our most recent goodbye, with how to make the other person understand. Not that we didn’t have any words left between us, but what could I possibly say to express how I sleep better at night knowing Lizzy also has dreams? To express that when loneliness sits down with me at my desk, I imagine Lizzy at her own as if we are looking at the same wall, fixed to the same spot that exists somewhere between here and there, in which the other person is always reflected back to us. Why would I try words, when what I really wanted was to put stars from the summer sky into a jar, for her to take back to the place where it is always winter?  

But that sky was far away now, in a state I won’t be backback to for a while. So instead of trying to make meaning out of a separation that, in the end, severs nothing, I stood on the steps of my apartment and watched Lizzy move farther and farther away into the landscape of a waning January. Just when I thought her back had turned for the last time, thought I wouldn’t see how the cold air flushed her face until the following winter, she would turn around and send out another wave, her shining eyes holding mine, until I had to be the one who climbed the stairs slowly up toward my room.  

Categories
Poetry

Orchid Story

by Ally Chase | Poetry | Spring 2021

Image by Katie Frevert

My grandmother told me a story  
about an orchid in her garden.  
She said the orchid is white,  
she said she does not water it. 
She does not move it into the sun, or away from the sun,
never from beneath the sprawling clarity of the kitchen window.
I said I don’t understand, she said she only touches the orchid
to finger the weight of its soft, dense petals. 

Everywhere she turns now, after fifteen years 
in the lush green of her home, there is an orchid.
Some hang suspended from the gnarled branches in her yard.
Some have put down roots in the dark Florida earth, and she
tends to these in a wide brimmed hat,  
bending gently to the soil beneath a solitary palm. 

These are the orchids which have allowed for her devotion,
yet she chose to tell me about the only one  
that receives nothing. I try to make sense:  
there are the orchids she must touch to keep alive,
and there is the one that refuses her hands.  
Together these hands are all my grandmother has to offer,
but somehow it is nothing for her to fold them together,
to accept the presence of wonder with ease.  

She expects the orchid to bloom because by growing,
it has created her faith. How can faith  
keep her hands from wringing over what she cannot give
this anomaly of nature? Instead she trusts that her eyes
see what she knows. She looks at this orchid—a glance
and then a glance away. She witnesses a miracle. 

But a sense of peace, like the white flower, feels so precarious.
Still the story doesn’t make sense, 
and I haven’t seen an orchid since my last visit. 
Now I can only watch through the phone as the miracle replaces
the central act of her hand. There in the window
is the orchid’s final reflection, and there is my grandmother,
ending a life she thought went on without her,  
just by sitting down to rest.

Categories
Field Notes

Reworking

by Ally Chase | Field Notes | Fall 2020

Image by Leah Rosenthal

When everything changes, a hometown job becomes a source of comfort. 


The shop door swings open, and already, the moment is in flux. In front of me, through the familiar blast of air conditioning and pop music, every aspect of Flint Farm is coming and going. Some girls are noting the hour on their time cards, and talking idly about their dinner plans. Others laugh as they face each other, mirror each other, across the massive freezers of ice cream, packing a pint or scooping a cone. Some rush between their windows and the shallow wells that hold the scoops, and more still ask customers what they can get for them tonight. I stand silently in the doorway for a minute, watching as I gather my hair into a tight braid, and grin to myself as the bustle of the night spreads out before me. 

I take my place at a vacant window, leaning my body against the stained wood counter to stick my head out onto the porch. By now the evening has begun to cool, and the sun has reached that spot where it filters through the trees lining the parking lot, before it will settle far beyond the mulch and grass that lie on the other side of the road. People are crossing that road now, to get their ice cream, to get to where I stand waiting for them. The next person in line skips up to the counter to tell me what they want. I smile, I turn on my heels, and suddenly I have begun to jump the rope again. Finally, happily, I have dived into the water, and will stay beneath the surface until closing time.

Flint Farm is a town institution. Our humble four-window counter sells ice cream each year from April until Halloween, and the fifth and sixth generations of the Flint family operate the land themselves. In the summer we share the huge rickety barn with the farmstand that sells corn, vegetables, and, if you get there early enough, sunflowers that tower over the older women that buy them. 

Yet this place is not rural; in fact, Mansfield is so strictly suburban that if you continued down the road where Flint Farm sits, you would reach both a Target and a T.J. Maxx within minutes. Inevitably, the farm has become a meeting post for middle schoolers on bikes, an evening excursion for families on languid Sunday evenings, the perfect picnic table for a first date over ice cream cones. When I got behind the counter my sophomore year of high school, I felt I had joined a privileged sort of club, and it was in that spirit that I began my work there.

The details of the job, the tender parts of serving that no one notices, quickly became my reasons for loving it. There are so many things I never want to forget: the perfectly timed reflex of closing the cash register drawer with my hip, the bruises and dried ice cream up and down my forearms after I leave, the methodical crushing of empty tubs under my feet on the gravel by the greenhouse. I learned the regulars by name, and it felt natural to wonder about the people in line, the couples silent beside one another. 

Nobody told me that spending time behind the counter would mean those interactions would stay with me so much longer. After every shift I left buzzing, irrevocably changed. Now whenever I place my order somewhere, I turn away from the register thinking about how I can never really be just a customer again. 

And on those October afternoons when the job gets boring, you learn how to sidle up effortlessly next to someone as she scoops for the rainy day’s single customer. Everyone talks about the same things, some of them revolving around the work: what happened during last night’s shift and why our boss seemed displeased with one girl or another. But the conversation always turns comfortably to musings, and even more so to complaints. We all knew about the biology test someone would be taking the following day, or the boy that visited every afternoon during another’s shift. We also knew why one of our girls had been crying in her car, in the employee parking lot behind the field, before opening shop that morning. It is, and then it is not at all, surprising how many delicate things a person will reveal to someone they see a few hours a week. 

***

Last fall I went to college and forgot about Flint Farm, and I forgot all about being home. And then they shipped me back in March, during that mid-semester break. I worried and wept over this new wildfire illness, thinking I could stay jaded, thinking I couldn’t possibly pick up where I left off last August. Thinking there was no space for me in between wanting to be here and wanting to be away. It seemed uncomplicated for everyone else as they got their bearings between home and school, but for me such ease had always loomed so far removed, in a realm of cohesion it seemed impossible to exist in. 

Still, I felt cheated out of finding my own way; my private sense of unsettledness had come to an end, abruptly and prematurely. It was the punchline of a cruel joke, and I sat for hours, not laughing, trying to construct a semblance of meaning behind where I was.

But March passed, and time, as it tends to do, worked swiftly and sneakily against my resentment. The days got sunnier, and secretly I was overjoyed to be home in time to catch the fleeting blooms on the lilac tree beside my bedroom window. To see the black-eyed Susans spring up lazily in the front garden. To go for bike rides with my friends down to the train tracks, as we wondered aloud about what could possibly be next amidst so much uncertainty. With every passing week, every trip to the grocery store, and every night at the dinner table with my parents, college faded more and more into darkness, into otherness. Soon it was only a distant and abstract place, lonely to remember, because being alone at home and being alone hundreds of miles away are two very different things.

Then April came around again, and as we wondered how Flint Farm could possibly open in all of the chaos, it did. For the fourth summer I stood behind the counter and waited for the orders to come. So many things were different; gone were banana splits and cones, whose removals seemed arbitrary to both me and the customers. To scoop, we wore masks and gloves, and out of the 30-odd employees only 10 were allowed back on the schedule. Sometimes the girls on my shift were, apart from my parents, the only in-person contact I had all week. 

So many things were different, yet everything was the same. The old speaker in the corner still played those cheesy songs. We scooped and sampled for ourselves during lulls. We gossiped about people we knew and complained about customers, a whole new criteria available for our judgement: “How hard is it to put a mask on?” “Why did he get so close to the counter?” “Can’t they see that isn’t the entrance?”

At some point the thought occurred to me that it felt like a normal summer. The more I realized how true this was, the uneasier I became. It kept me awake, how promptly life had picked back up in Mansfield, when time had stopped everywhere else in the world. I had come back to Flint Farm eager to work, maybe a little too thrilled to put on my ratty sweatshirts and pink rubber clogs like I had every other 15th of April. 

I took for granted, in the simplest of ways, that I would assume my usual role, even in all of this. Even as the flames licked at our sides. But why? How could I be unfazed by the droves of people still coming out on a summer night for their sundaes and milkshakes? And yet, it all seemed so perfectly logical. Wasn’t an ice cream shop the cornerstone of a small-town summer? Shouldn’t it always be this way? Should it?

And at one time, hadn’t I been delighted to hear the girls criticize their parents, and divulge the details of the parties they had been to the night before? After all, it seemed a rite of passage to be hungover during a Sunday opening shift, and even more so to tell about it. But it was under a fresh cloud of vague and unnameable dread that I listened to their woes and tales, and shared some of my own. 

What I did not share was the dull, gnawing fear of how natural it felt for us all to ignore the world in pieces around us. Somehow, at Flint Farm, our lives had managed to stay intact. Maybe all along I had been the only one seeing this job in such a sentimental way, so I was the only one disappointed when the spell started to break and the sanctity of our wholesome ignorance came into question. Had it always been this way? Had I just not seen it? 

And maybe I was the problem. Maybe I had misjudged both everything I knew, and a place, whether it be Mansfield or Flint Farm, whose every corner I had explored a hundred times. Maybe, as it has been with so many things before, my expectations would never line up with the reality I should have always known, the one that always lands neatly in a spiral at my feet.

***

Late one night in the summer, I was leaning idly against the counter, looking through the windshield of a car as a woman spooned a taste of her ice cream into her husband’s mouth. He smiled as she pulled the spoon from his lips, nodding to say, “Oh, that’s good.” Between them, a face mask dangled from the rearview mirror. A second thought occurred to me then, not quite an answer to my questions, but close enough. 

Under the eyes that smiled at me, or rather at the ice cream I handed them, there was a quiet but insistent need for preservation, and it was out of this need that the normalcy in our town continued with such resilience. 

The moment at the beginning of this piece, where I am looking upon all of the magic being generated in our little shop, could have been any night during any summer, this one included. Still, I now have trouble reconciling how misplaced it felt to extract the same amount of joy from an experience that was so different, but maybe should have been even more so. 

Maybe all along I had been the only one seeing this job in such a sentimental way, so I was the only one disappointed when the spell started to break.

But like the customers I served and the people I worked with, it was out of necessity that I chose to let whatever I was feeling about Flint Farm evaporate into the sticky summer air. I stopped thinking about whether this was the right or wrong thing to do. In fact, I stopped thinking about Flint Farm altogether, and accepted it as where I needed to be. This time, the choice between here and there was mine again. I teared up whenever I let my thoughts drift to the lake with my grandparents, to that lush time of year where I should have been fishing with my grandfather or reading silently next to my grandmother, and could now do neither. 

But instead, I could pour root beer over vanilla ice cream and let the foam overflow with its sweet, rich scent. And most days I would sit alone on my porch in the morning sunshine, looking up at all of that bright blue, wishing on a cloud that I could flip pancakes for breakfast with my best friend. But I could scoop pints and make change for a 20-dollar bill and blend the strawberry frappe, extra thick, for the man I knew I would do the same for the next day. There was so much I could not do, but I could be present in that moment where the music picks up and I am rapping in the rhythm of the work. I could settle for this, because I did not want to comprehend the alternative.

All of this being said, it turns out there is no real reason I can point to, besides that time passes, for why I grew up and the job stayed the same. I remember one winter years ago, driving back from a friend’s house on East Street, I stopped at the light and looked out the window to see the sun setting over Flint Farm. 

Behind the silos it was turning the fields orange and the houses black, everything bare and raw from the frigid off-season. I stared and stared at that place I knew so well, and I felt I finally understood how something could be so beautiful it broke your heart. But after every shift this summer, lingering in the parking lot, all of my senses attuned to how Flint Farm would be exactly the same when I came back as it was when I left, I would squint once more into that line between field and sky, and think about going home.